Weekly Question No. 8 - Does Struggle Make for Better Art?

edited January 15 in General Discussion


Statistics on the low income of most full-time artists have been touched on in a number of threads here. The impoverished artist in a freezing garret, struggling to make the world see something new has become a cliché. Whilst original artists may be at the cutting edge of the cultural zeitgeist, it is very difficult to achieve financial success, wide acclaim or even understanding in one’s own lifetime. The vast majority of committed full-time fine artists who do not have an independent income must be prepared for poverty and indifference. That’s just how it is – that’s what the statistics tell us.  It could be argued that, for the good of art, it must be this way. Do you think it must? Is there another way?


  • CBGCBG -
    edited January 15

    If one has no independent income and works at anything full time which provides little to no income then how are they surviving?  Survival is the first responsibility of every independent self-responsible adult.

    Art and finances are not by necessity connected in any way (except art supplies cost money) In fact, it is only if a person wishes to make the activity of art lucrative that they have anything to do with one another.

    Like any thing, any scheme, any product, any service, any activity one wishes to turn into a source of income, one has to look at all the factors.  Time, expenses, skill, the market, etc. If no one wants what you offer they will not trade you anything for it… so what do they want?  How can you develop the skill to produce what they want and find the time to produce it at a rate you can live on?  How do you let them know you make what they want and how do you facilitate getting the thing they want to them and the money they have to you?

    Nothing about art “has” to be any way.  There are factors about the goal and journey of making money from art which simply exist.  That said struggling alone in obscurity waiting until every painting you produce is a masterpiece is not the only option and is probably not the wisest.

    Working with the factors of reality one could envision taking a loan to fund one’s training and in a free society one would not be shackled to banks, one could approach private investors, patrons, etc.  There will be a price, whether in interest or product or profit share because there is risk.  One alternatively could approach family and friends.  But one would have to work hard to make a real thoughtful business plan rather than just some vague pipe dream. You are asking them for money they earned for themselves and you must show you will able one day to deserve it by producing the promised return on their investment.

    With respect to soulless third party publishers, agents, galleries etc I have given some thought to the differential treatment given starting artists in contractual arrangements versus the terms given proven superstars.  It seems to me a no brainer to include a sliding scale or multiple contingent tiers to cover risk.  Think of of it this way, starting costs and investment are nominally the same for everyone but the return on that investment has a greater probability of success for established proven artists, performers, or authors and a greater risk of loss for the unproven.  The investor assigns higher interest or demands a greater profit share for longer (and is justified given risks) for an unknown than would be in a contract with a superstar artist.  With a sliding scale or tiers the investor gets large interest or a large profit share for smaller amounts earned per month or year (under whatever conditions are more risky or less lucrative) but lesser interest or share when sales per year are larger…( or under whatever conditions are less risky and more lucrative) in essence instead of having a single arrangement for a beginner or assuming someone destined for failure, build into the arrangement a contingent aspect which encourages motivation and scales with skill…treating you like a risky noob if you perform like one and treating you like a superstar when you perform like one.

    Arrangements can be unique creative and facilitate success.  No potential investor or partner would want their artist to fail, and no artist asking for investment should be so daft, dishonourable, or tyrannical as to demand others cut off their own limbs or sacrifice anything of value for the sake of the artists personal passion in art so matter how earnest or intense.  The artist must approach everyone honourably, honestly, and with integrity, without any sense of entitlement… in every dealing, always endeavouring to trade to others what they want in exchange for what you want to receive… your valuing what you receive from them more than what you give to them and their valuing what they receive from you more than what they give to you: so that everyone literally wins.

    IMHO Things are what they are and cannot be what they are not but we can choose to act and attempt anything.  Attempting to turn art into a way to make money is only limited by your skill, industry, ability to think of ways to make money, and your willingness to give people what they want to pay for… doing all with diligence, passion, and integrity.

  • edited January 15
    Thanks for your thoughtful response, @CBG.

     I wonder how many potential Vincent van Gogh's fell by the wayside because they couldn't hack the hardship.  How many of them ended up at a regular jobs and how any masterpieces did that deprive the world of?

    VVG, and many others, saw painting as a vocation rather than a job or a business and they struggled on despite the poverty. They were compelled to paint, to devote themselves to it, despite the hardship and the world is the richer for their work and their suffering. The reason behind this week's question is that I was wondering if there is a way for societies to better support emerging artists who don't have the resources to pursue art full time.

    Or should they be left to struggle because, that way, only those with something original to say ,and who feel compelled to say it, will pursue art rather than every talentless Tom, Dick and Harry who might decide to give art a go if they were subsidized even though they had nothing new to say.  Maybe the struggle is necessary to ensure only the best and most committed carry on and so produce the best art.

     I don't know the answer to this dilemma or even if there is an answer.  But I am sorry VVG had to suffer so. :)  
  • CBGCBG -
    edited January 15

    I think in a free society those who value art can both directly fund it and persuade others also.  

    Those who hate cycling should not fund manufacture of bicycles for anyone and equally those who can only afford or only like to travel by bicycle should not pay for airplanes to be built. If and when any parcel is shipped by bicycle or plane all of those costs are built into the shipping price.  Equally those who always shop online and never visit physical stores should not pay for store fronts and those who never shop online should not fund the shipping of anything to anyone else.

    Those who love Bach and the symphony should not fund urban music if they do not want to listen to it.  Those who love romantic comedy should not subsidize a transformers movie by micheal bay.  Those who love fine art but hate porn should not have to fund the poe industry.  

    We should be free in a society to value and pursue those things we voluntarily and individually value.  Free in a society to pay for, donate, give charity, ask, and persuade others to act freely in support of our values.  That is a win win.

    I do not believe a society can do anything except provide the freedom for people in that society to do something.  The best a society does for people is not to force anything on or from them but to get out of the way and let the skills, ingenuity, passion, and drive of any and all artists and their supporters soar free without limit.
  • edited January 15
    Thanks, @CBG. I agree. It's hard to argue that art should be publicly funded like health, education, defense...

    If artists were heavily subsidized, we might have a lot of not very talented people pumping out repetitious and mediocre work because they get paid by taxpayers to do so and not because they have something new to say. If making a living as an artist were made too easy, every Tom, Dick and Harry would be doing it whether they had something new to say or not. Making a living out of painting would beat waiting tables or driving for Uber.  However, art, so the argument goes, must be pursued for its own sake. It’s a vocation and not just a way of earning a living like a bank clerk or the check-out chick at Walmart. Not that there’s anything wrong with those honest jobs but they don’t require commitment to anything other than earning a living. The argument is that art must be a vocation and not just a job.  I’m not sure if this is true . but could we maintain the vocational nature of being an original artist and the production of groundbreaking art if artists were subsidized. The argument goes that the truly original artist must have something they are compelled to say despite poverty and indifference. Publicly subsidizing art may lead to a lot of uncompelled and non-committed painters turning out hum drum work and saying nothing new.

    Moreover, the things necessary for survival and health - clean air, water, food, clothing, shelter - are the primary concerns for the vast majority of humanity. Fine original art is for the rich who don’t have to worry about the necessities. Most ordinary working people will never be able to buy fine original paintings for thousands of dollars. And they probably wouldn’t like seeing their taxes spent on paying artists to produce stuff they will never be able to afford.


    So, public funding of the arts presents a dilemma, which is why I posted the question. :)

  • CBGCBG -
    edited January 15

    An artist must have something to say despite poverty and indifference, and should have something to say also despite immense riches and overweening praise or fame.  The skilled artist must produce good work to be successful AS an artist. The work of an unskilled artist who produces rubbish remains so whether she is poor or rich. 

    As for original art being only for the rich I would dispute that.  It is not a paucity of funds but perhaps a paucity of taste or values which dominates here.  Cigarettes, booze, porn, pop culture, and superficialities such as fashion, makeup, etc. are HUGE markets which benefit from high demand and although art always employs a great amount of time per work, the prices and the market for honest work of value arguably would and could exist more predominantly.

    Why wouldn't every household have a family painting or a number of portraits?  What cultural hangups and psychoses stops the average person from even considering such a thing as a possible value?

    If ever there is a utopia... one day...  it will be full of art and artists funded solely by voluntary trade with a majority of individuals of an enlightened society... motivated by the beauty of art and made possible by the self esteem required to feel they deserve and are worthy of having it.
  • edited January 15
    I agree, @CBG, that It would be nice if every ordinary household could have fine original paintings. And that would be great for artists, too. But go into any commercial gallery and check out the prices of high quality works. They cost thousands of dollars. And given the work involved in producing them they are worth that. But Mr and Mrs Average will not be buying them. The buyers will be people with lots of disposable income and not those struggling to pay the rent or mortgage, which is the position that the vast majority of people are in. Maybe the only way for ordinary folk to buy affordable original work would be to go to local community art shows where work sells in the hundreds rather than the thousands. A lot of very good artists who end up being represented by commercial galleries start out at local shows and the discerning buyer can pick up bargains there. Unfortunate, the artist doesn't make much selling at such venues.
  • CBGCBG -
    edited January 15

    I believe that every market is driven by demand.  Supply inexorably follows.  Effort chases proferred value...

    You speak of particular market mechanisms, institutions and supply chains, business models, which reflect today's relatively low (by population not value) market demand (Galleries and Community Art Shows).  If demand were to rise significantly across the board a whole new set of different and varying mechanisms would spring up to meet it and a wide spectrum of artists would populate it at every level in avery way. IMHO

    E.g. If the demand (desire for art) across the culture (everyone regardless of socioeconomic "status") were to rise, it would rise for every level of skill and kind of art and be open to every level of means.  Why wouldn't a college student starting out in life choose to buy some art at a level which fits within his or her means to decorate her room?  Why wouldn't an artist who is also just starting out create and sell works which match perfectly the means and level of "art attainability" of that student?  Would there not be a spectrum across all levels for appreciation, production, and development?  One day that student may be successful, and will be able to buy a masterpiece painted by that very artist once that artist has gained sufficient skill and success themselves...  Other artists might never produce great work but instead choose to paint passionately (and with greater levels of production) for those of more moderate means.  

    I think in a culture which appreciates art much more than post-modern cultures, there would be a place for all levels of skill and price, which soon would be filled out by a market with various market mechanisms which go beyond what exists today, perhaps even beyond the kinds and numbers we could imagine here now.

    But this is a cultural, philosophical, and psychological impossibility... at least for the near future, if Twitter and more generally social media and the media itself is any barometer of the mental health of societies.

    Focusing a bit more on the art rather than the market:

    I do agree that art has to be for art's sake... only if a person identifies the additional possibility of making one's passion ALSO something which pays bank.. should it be considered a potential source of income.  Money is just the icing on the cake.

    I also believe that a person has to have depth to produce good art. And although depth can come from struggle, struggle as a human being to grow and understand and attain selfhood, I think it would be superficial to adopt the widely romanticised version of the artist being artistic because he or she is struggling financially or came from a youth or childhood of adversity or poverty.  Misfortune is not any kind of badge of honour.  Resilience and achievement in the face of adversity and challenge are.

    Finally, there is a distinction between effort, diligence, and work on the one hand and pain and suffering on the other.  The latter are indications of leading a bad life or making wrong choices, they are what happen to you not the choices you make, the former are the currency voluntarily paid by a responsible individual for living a fulfilling life, intrinsic to the very act of growth and flourishing.  So an artist must toil and spin, think and feel, confront the dragon within (and perhaps without) but she need not despair or suffer in wailing pain, and she should not conflate the effort of achievement with suffering.

    So to any Artist I say:

    "Suffer not any fools who dare say you must suffer"

    Thank you for the discussion.  I will let you and this thread rest from my ramblings and give others all the room in the world to get a word in...
  • I’m enjoying the thread…
    I don’t think there are any absolutes.  You can be a successful and talented artist without any struggle.  And you can have loads of struggle and never be a successful artist.  
    If you measure the success in terms of money then you need some good marketing skills or some financial backing or connections to influential people, or just plain good luck.  I think most successful people will admit that there was a lot of lucky involved in their success. 
    One thing is for sure though, if you don’t make an effort you will run into less luck.
  • edited January 16
    Thanks, @GTO. I agree, there is an element of luck involved but, as you say, effort is essential. Unless one is born rich, struggle is part of life. And, yes, luck and effort seem to hang out together quite often.  :)

    Perhaps something like government funded loans for young artists, repayable once income reaches a certain  threshold, would help struggling younger artists who are just starting out. But that would be a hard idea to sell. 
  • edited January 16
    Yes there is that romanticised notion of the struggling artist I guess it makes for a better story if they have gone from rags to riches or never made a penny when alive and now sell for millions.

    I agree that there are several factors that determine success. Of course putting the work in is a must then if luck and timing make an appearance, and thats a big if, then you are more likely to make it.

    I think if we look at all of the other arts the same is true there are of course countless brilliant actors and musicians who are struggling and will never get the recognition that they deserve.

    Its all so precarious.  

    Such is life.
  • edited January 16
    Cheers, @MichaelD.

    Yes, a lot depends on luck. And I mean dead luck. Like if you're born into a wealthy family you have a head start even though you did nothing to earn it. An artist whose mom and dad set her up in a cushy studio and provide an allowance doesn't have to worry. It's different for the ret of us. And, as you say, it's not jut in the visual arts that people have to struggle. Talent is legion but for whatever reason some just don't get a break. It's sad and unfair but that's how the world is. The best we regular folk can do is work as hard  as we can so that if a lucky break does come along we're ready to take advantage of it. 
  • edited January 16
    I particularly think of the shameful exploitation of Australian indigenous artists. The big prices and so little going back to artist. I'm not sure how well they've closed that gap now.
    How many artists have the skills to really market themselves or tap into the right buyers? The very few have that flair of creating the mystique and reputation.
    What we do in international development is to be intentional around collective avenues to open up access to market power for those who are traditionally exploited. I heard today a woman in near Goroka in Papua New Guinea fled from domestic violence with five children. She had 5 kina in her pocket (USD1.42) and a business card she'd carried for five years. She used the 5 kina at internet cafe to tell this entrepreneurial NGO she was holding a bilum (woven bag) festival in Goroka. She made that idea up on the spot. Fast forward and a fashion house in Sydney began to tell the women what colours and design variations were selling. Now London. These women are building houses for their children by weaving bags, traditional skill. (Unrelated to her story I still have a bilum I bought there in year 2000 woven from a hessian sack. I love it.)
    It's similar with things like Fair Trade. Create an ethos, a movement, that is a reaction to the big-monied art industry that instead puts more back into the artists. Probably run by non-profit or NGO or something and small collectives of artists in an area can tap into it. Then attract the skills of people who used to work for Sotheby's or equivalent. In the end you still have to have a product people want to buy.
    I don't know. It's all well beyond my pay grade. Just thoughts and not quite there. I've learnt to never throw out a good idea because there's something wrong with it. Because there's something wrong with every good idea. It often just needs a few other good ideas to make it work.
  • Thanks, @Abstraction. That was a great and inspiring read. In many cases their just needs to be some opportunity, not much, just enough to get that foot on the first rung of the ladder. And it's good to see that that's what you guys facilitate in international development.

    I think the whole big gallery scene can be intimidating and exploitative. More needs to go back to the artists - especially those who don't yet command high prices and are living hand to mouth. It's been encouraging to see the rise in indigenous art in Australia. In recent years Indigenous artists have been winning big prizes like the Hadley Prize here in Tasmania ($100, 000) and are regularly finalists in the Glover and the Archibald competitions. And there is a developing international market for indigenous work. Much of it done at a community level and sold directly rather than through the big well known galleries who take a massive cut. I'm sure there's still exploitation going on but it's getting better. 
  • In my country, art is an unimportant matter for general people (middle class) to appreciate in terms of supporting an artist financially. The same cannot be said for the things like musicians where the impact is immediate. Also, getting into the company of rich people is not easy. This can only happen if they are in that circle through big galleries, big exhibitions and capability of projecting themselves well in front of the elites, media and commercial circles. This means artist must be a full time professional. 

    Now how to survive when one's not in the gallery circle or selling well enough? Only answer is that get a job to support oneself. If one has an art degree then they'll stay in the artistic and commercial circle. But losing creativity for security is a big issue. I've seen this in my family. Otherwise, take a regular job, earn, and invest money in art gradually but time will be a big issue here. 

    I feel that in India in most cases, pro musicians, commercial artists, film people earn good money now because there is a big commercial infrastructure for these things.
    Whereas, writers, theater folks and fine artists struggle a lot because there's no commercial infrastructure. Without a financial support from businesses, there's no hope in hell in improving this situation. But I'm not sure how businesses will equate fine art with commerce. 

    One thought, most of our cricketers till 1990s would fade without even making a name because of issues such as job security, dominance of elite states, not enough skill to play at national level, not enough money in the first class games etc. Since the commercialization in 90s and then IPL, capable young players are now appearing regularly because there's a promise of big pay. This needs to happen in arts too. We need to find a way for this.
  • Some really good comments here! Thanks as usual to @tassieguy for starting this discussion.

    Completely off topic alert:

    Van Gogh is one of my favorite painters. His suffering seems to me to be more from his mental or emotional illness rather than poverty. I know that the myth of van Gogh presents him as impoverished and not caring about making a living from his art; and that he was somehow “noble” because of this combination. However, extensive research into his life and that of his close relatives, as well as his employment records, indicates otherwise. He was supported almost his entire adult life by first, his father, and then, for the majority of his adult life, by his brother Theo. (“Van Gogh,” by Naifeh and Smith. 900+ pages)

    Vincent’s lifestyle during the time his brother supported him was enough to keep him in alcohol and prostitutes, as well as art supplies, food and housing (not a bad deal!). He was terrible about managing his money carefully – and not because he didn’t have enough. He desired greatly to make a living as an artist and have the respect of his peers. But he didn’t; not because vulgar society didn’t understand him, but because of his difficult personality. He was not driven mad by society’s rejection. He was extremely troubled as a young child and remained so until he died. (BTW, I may be the only person in the world who will admit to thinking he did not shoot himself.)

    So, if he had had access to 20th century drugs such as lithium for bipolar disorder or Prozac for depression, he likely would have been a happier person. The world may or may not have benefitted from his art if he was happier.

    Somewhat more on topic:

    Some individuals perform better with more anxiety about money and public acceptance. The other 99% of us perform better with less anxiety. I think anxiety is counterproductive, especially as years or decades roll on and we don’t make a living from art. I attended a formal art program decades ago; as I recall, many of the students had anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, were really angry a lot, and so on. The only classmates I recall actually going on to make a solid living from their art work were focused, disciplined, normal happy campers from the beginning. Success was an outcome of their personalities; their personalities were not an outcome of their success.  

    A European country, I vaguely remember as the Netherlands or Denmark, had a social experiment in which artists were supported for decades and the government purchased the artwork (1970s – 1990s?). Warehouses are filled with this uninspiring body of work. The country has since ended this experiment. If someone, perhaps from Europe, could give better information on this, I would be grateful.

    Off topic again (I can’t help it):

    I am not rich and all my charitable donations go to domestic violence advocacy, doctors without borders, and land mine removal. Last year, I did donate a fair amount to local poor kids for art supplies. But that is a one-off, not an ongoing commitment.  

    OK - actually on-topic:  Some painters will improve with struggles, others will degrade, and still others will not be much affected one way or the other. Like in any other creative endeavor. 

  • tassieguy said:
    Cheers, @MichaelD.

    Yes, a lot depends on luck. And I mean dead luck. Like if you're born into a wealthy family you have a head start even though you did nothing to earn it. An artist whose mom and dad set her up in a cushy studio and provide an allowance doesn't have to worry. It's different for the ret of us.

    He is a mysterious, up-and-coming artist whose work has been championed by the likes of Madonna and sells for up to five figures.

    But there were raised eyebrows when it was revealed that “Rhed” was none other than the singer’s eldest son, Rocco Ritchie.

    The 21-year-old, Madonna’s child with her ex-husband Guy Ritchie, has been said in reports to have quietly established himself as an expressionist painter, with a number of shows at the Tanya Baxter Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, west London, since 2018.

    But since PageSix unmasked Ritchie, opinion has been divided on whether his success is due to talent or the weight of his parents’ names.

    Rhed’s pieces are listed on Artsy for up to £24,000. Whether or not the world should have allowed Ritchie to continue using a fake name is yet to be determined.

  • Richard_P said:
    Whether or not the world should have allowed Ritchie to continue using a fake name is yet to be determined.
    Richard_P - I think the human collective known as the world is not capable of acting in unison about anything, and so, for me, the issue of "should" doesn't arise. Using one's influence (power, money, etc.) to help oneself and one's family is part of human nature. I took a look at some of Rhed's paintings and, in addition to not liking the style, I thought they were not well composed or interesting.  Maybe he will get better with more years painting. 

    Maybe he used a false name to avoid being branded a wanna-be riding on his mother's or father's famous names. 
  • edited January 17
    Thanks, @KaustavM and @Desertsky.

    The message I'm getting is that folks don't see any easy answers. Your experience of the art scene in India is probably mirrored in countries around the world, @kaustavM .

    The scheme in Denmark you mentioned , @Desrtsky, does not augur well for such schemes. However not all schemes are like that. Down here the state runs a scheme called the COLLECT Art Purchase Scheme whereby people can buy a painting from a gallery and the state government pays the gallery and the purchaser then pays the sum back to the government in installments over 12 months. I've bought two paintings and have sold several of my own paintings through this scheme. It seems to work well and is a way for ordinary people to acquire quality art without it costing the government anything. 

    I don't agree with governments buying all the work like they tried in Denmark. That's not a good way to fund the arts or to encourage quality work. I think things have to be market driven in order to work. I'm not a radical free market libertarian opposed to any and all regulation but we know that  free markets (well regulated to prevent monopolies and exploitation) are the most efficient way of driving production and wealth creation. 

    And you are no doubt right about VVG - the story we have come to know is probably as much myth as history. He may have done better with todays treatments for his mental health problems but, in banishing his demons the muse, his angel of creativity, might also have been silenced. 
  • Art makes for better struggle.
  • CBGCBG -
    edited January 17
    Desertsky said:

    "Success was an outcome of their personalities; their personalities were not an outcome of their success."  

                                        - Desertsky writing for the Draw Mix Paint Forum, 2022

     Hear! Hear!
  • Given the heat wave we’re having here, being stuck in a freezing garret sounds quite appealing.
  • edited January 21
    Cheers, @Boudicca. I've noticed you topping 40C every day lately. And how about Onslow topping 50C recently? It must be a struggle to do anything in that heat..  :'(

    Good to see you here again. Wear a hat and sunscreen. Paint something cool.  :)
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